Olga Bell is hilarious. In her American Songbook debut at Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse last night, the Russian-born art-rock/avant garde keyboardist/singer validated a brave piece of booking, in the process triumphing over all sorts of adversity. This was a tough gig from the git-go. Cheefing on what seemed like a bottomless thermos til it was gone, then finally switching to water, she battled a cold along with some unfamiliar gear that malfunctioned to the point of threatening to completely derail her show. But she persevered, cheerfully breaking the fourth wall when she wasn’t mercilessly pillorying the yuppie careerism, incessant status-grubbing and money obsessions of gentrifier-era Brooklyn, which she now calls home.
And she did it with more than just her lyrical jabs, which turned out to be a lot subtler than her musical barbs. Those drew the heartiest laughs from a sold-out audience of well-heeled twentysomethings whose mere presence in Manhattan on a Friday night was something of a surprise: turns out that not everyone in zip code 11221 is petrified of being geotagged outside it.
When she hit her pitch pedal and ran her vocals through a toddler-voice patch to make fun of a guy who’s too big for his britches, and then a little later turned the kiss-off anthem Power User into phony hip-hop, the crowd roared. She had similar fun with her electronics and all the loops she’d stashed away in her sequencer, particularly a Bernie Worrell-style low bass synth setting that she worked for every droll riff she could think of.
Her between-song patter also had edge and bite. Acknowledging that for her, this gig spelled revenge for having been rejected by the Juilliard folks a few floors below, she played elegantly nuanced, neoromantically-tinged piano when she wasn’t fiddling with her mixer, or loading a stubborn loop device, or feeding layers of melody into an arpeggiator. Such things exist: clearly, there’s a market among players who prefer chords instead. She namechecked “aspirational hipsters,” including the guy at the corner bar who’s on the take more than he’s on the make.
“Wherefore art thou, Doppio?” she posed to another would-be romantic doofus. Even the simpler, techier, disco-oriented numbers were laced with taunts and sarcasm, particularly Stomach It and Your Life Is a Lie, among other tracks from her 2016 album Tempo. Toward the end of the show, she was joined by cellist Andrea Lee for a moody Russian border-rock ballad from the 2014 album Krai, and then soul singer Sarah Lucas, who belted out one of the more pop-oriented electronic numbers. Bell encored with a vaudevillian piano tune about finding romance on the L train, which she’d written in 2006 for the Rockwood Music Hall open mic. Who knew there was once such a thing – and who knew that somebody who played there would someday headline at Lincoln Center.
This year’s American Songbook series continues to venture much further afield than the theatre music and pop hits from the 1930s and 40s that it was created for almost twenty years ago. There are two Kaplan Penthouse shows next week that deserve special mention: on Tuesday, March 28 at 8 PM, the Cactus Blossoms, who have an eerie resemblance to the Everly Brothers, bring their rapturous harmonies and disconsolate Americana ballads. And the following night, March 29, powerhouse Ghanian-born oldschool soul belter Ruby Amanfu leads her band.